One of the great mysteries of ancient China is the origin and meaning of the terrifying animal faces on Shang ritual vessels. These faces look down on us from the distance of 3,000 years but are just as awe and terror-inspiring as they were during the Shang period. Although the pattern occurs on virtually all bronze vessels, almost nothing is known today about them, except their name: Taotie (Chinese: 饕餮). A later source reveals that the taotie is man-eating beast that harms people. The ferocious look of the face would seem to confirm this hypothesis.
Because the taotie occurs on ritual bronze vessels, there has to be some connection to death or the afterworld. It has been suggested that the taotie guards the entrance to the world of death, or that the taotie is the one who escorts the spirits to their destination.
The taotie has horns and has fangs. Sometimes it looks like a raging bull, sometimes more like a tiger. It is definitely a mixture of different kinds of animals, combined into a dreadful mixture. But the most striking feature of the face is undoubtedly its staring eyes.
It has also been pointed out that the taotie image carries some resemblance to Maya symbols. Although there is a certain visual similarity in its symmetrical shape and angular lines, there seems to be no connection between the two cultures whatsoever. The Shang Chinese and the Maya are separated by an enormous distance in both time and space.
We may never know what the taotie signifies or what kind of mythical beast it was. More and more bronze vessels are excavated with the face on them but they offer no clues to unlock the riddle.
Further Reading: Ancient Chinese Ritual Bronzes